What are the effects of plastic pollution?

Floating Plastic Debris

The outcry against plastic pollution is currently at an alltime high. Understand that more than 50% of all plastic that has ever been manufactured has been produced in the last 15 years. And in the next 20 years, plastic production is expected to double. That is what we refer to as an exponential influx of plastic waste into the environment.

What aggravates the plastic menace is that nearly half of all plastic products are designed for single use. Think of that Starbucks coffee cup or Dasani water bottle. To make matters worse, these products are infused with additives that make them more durable. 

This means that, once they become trash, they take about 500 years to break down. That’s around the year 2500? Whoever will be there will literally be walking on plastic.

Let’s examine some 5 major effects of plastic pollution.

1. Plastic pollution contributes to negative climate change

Plastic is a product of crude oil. The production process itself is known to release toxic air pollutants like sulfur oxide, nitrous oxide, methanol, volatile organic compounds, and ethylene oxide. 

Also, a good amount of plastic waste is burnt everyday as a way of disposal. Burning plastic releases hazardous chemicals including dioxins, heavy metals, hydrochloric acid, furans, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide.

To add on that, plastic waste decomposing in landfills releases millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. All these emissions contribute to global warming.

2. Plastic pollution is harmful to human health

We just mentioned the range of toxic substances released by plastic during production, decomposition, and burning. The most obvious effect on humans is respiratory disorders. Sometimes you can’t prevent yourself enough from inhaling the fumes. Once the toxic fumes get into your bloodstream, you risk getting diseases like asthma, pulmonary cancer, and nerve and brain damage.

Another way plastics harm humans is through the release of heavy metals into the environment. For whatever disposal method you think of – incineration, pyrolysis, gasification, etc – toxic metals are released into the air, soil and water. From the soil, you’ll get the heavy metals through eating food crops. From water, you will ingest the heavy metals through drinking water and eating marine animals. From the air, you directly inhale the heavy metals. Accumulation of these hazardous substances affects the respirator, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and reproductive systems. Diabetes, cancer, and chronic inflammation are on the rise partly due to plastic pollution. 

Over time, plastic is broken down into small pieces by environmental agents. Marine species like fish eat such plastic particles in large quantities. And humans eat the fish every other day. This means that the poisonous additives used in the manufacture of plastic end up in the human body. Accumulation over time causes serious illnesses.

3. Plastic pollution kills millions of animals

Man has the ability to judge good from bad in many ways. But poor animals may not realize it – even when they are drinking poison. That is exactly what happens. 

As plastic waste accumulates in the oceans and over land, animal food tends to accumulate on the surface of the plastic pieces. A good example is algae growing in and around bottle caps – or even food leftovers in garbage heaps sticking onto plastic debris.

Then picture that hawk scavenging the garbage piles. Somehow somewhat, they swallow large plastic pieces. Within days, the plastic pieces get entangled in the animal stomachs in such a manner that nothing else can pass through the gastrointestinal tract. The ingested plastics also release toxic chemicals into the bloodstream of these animals. What next? These animals die of hunger and chemical poisoning.

4. Plastic pollution threatens food security

Plastic pollution is not only rampant in aquatic ecosystems, but also in terrestrial ecosystems. On top of the typical plastic waste that finds its way to farmed lands, there are some farmers who use plastic mulch in a bid to retain soil moisture for longer periods. 

This has been shown to significantly increase soil temperatures – by up to 8%. Plastic residues accumulate season after season, and soil temperatures keep increasing. As time goes on, you realize the physicochemical properties of the soil are significantly and negatively altered. Food production subsequently goes down. And we literally stare at hunger in the coming days.

Is there anything we can do?

Thumbs up to those governments and municipalities which have set up measures to curb plastic pollution. Many countries are banning the use of some plastic products. We also see some countries removing plastic waste from their oceans and other water bodies. 

If the production is consistently reduced and waste is minimized, there remains some light at the end of the tunnel. Join the wagon by limiting the use of plastic items you don’t need.